Sunday, 10 November 2013

Dear Arvon...

Dear Arvon Foundation

You requested feedback on your recent short story course at your Totleigh Barton venue, but there wasn't much space on the form, so I though it appropriate to provide some further detail.  I feel I have
identified some key points which could improve the experience of future course attendees.


Consider locking the fridge at night.  Or maybe just be a little less welcoming.  This will prevent a large number of nocturnal incidents in which your clients are prevented from sleeping by a persistent little voice, whispering enticingly in their ear "Treat this as your home.  Eat anything you like from the big silver fridge."

And if there are any Geordies on the course, hide the crisps.  Northerners are often prone to a little-

Please also bear in mind that not everyone is from England and may not, therefore, be aware of the requirement for as much tea as is humanly possible to be consumed over the course of a week.  You may wish to send them some information about this, so that they can begin acclimatising.


I would propose a detailed questionnaire for all those attending your residential courses, in order to establish the precise nature of all your clients' sleep requirements.  This will probably reduce the number of minor nervous breakdowns experienced by your management team, due to multiple five-
way room swaps, all requiring an updating of the in-case-of-emergency paperwork.

Identify your insomniacs at the earliest possible opportunity, and put them in the rooms above the kitchen and off the dining room.  They will be so spectacularly hyped-up on gallons of tea and writing-related adrenaline that there is no prospect, whatsoever, of them sleeping, and can quite safely be lodged in the parts of the house most likely to be the location of midnight fridge-rummagings, early morning
gatherings and impromptu field-hospitals following the spraining of ankles.

It's probably worth asking your clients to keep a tally of the number of times they wee during the night, the week before they arrive.  You can then average out the number of nocturnal, bladder-related wanderings, and decide the most appropriate occupants for the rooms nearest the bathrooms.  No-one who wees more than once a night should be permitted to sleep in the room above the kitchen unless they sign an undertaking that they will, under no circumstances, step on the third and fifth step, between the hours of eleven and six.

Writers can't do maths.  Any room swaps should be carefully supervised by a member of staff, preferably with a note taken, and signed off in triplicate.  Otherwise all that will happen is that three people will finish up wandering around the annex, clutching bags and looking blank, while a fourth attempts to evict a puzzled, non-swap-participant from a room that was never actually involved in a set of arrangements, which are so complicated that they should probably be run by a military tactician, before being unleashed on the world.

Establish, right at the beginning of the week, if anyone is planning on falling in a ditch and spraining their ankle.  Consider placing them in a ground floor room.

Someone will lock themselves out of their room at some point.  At the first briefing, you should probably make the entire group repeat, out loud, the location of the master key.  Probably three times, at least.  And then do spot-checks.  I guarantee that none of them are listening.

Do not allow the various room-swaps to be referred to as "bed-hopping."  It gives the wrong impression.


Please correct your entire stock of dictionaries.

Jigiliaise, saxoding and yolearning are definitely words, referring, respectively, to a new, slightly saucy dance craze, the Saxon method of calling others in for dinner by "dinging" a pot with a spoon, and a complex emotion, a sort of amalgam of yearning and learning.

Hinch, however, is not a word.  No matter how many Canadians try to persuade you that it is the act
of a tall person shrugging.

Rectifying this minor etymological oversight will prevent another entirely-avoidable situation in which England loses to Canada in a game of pan-continental Scrabble.

The Pub

Do not, under any circumstances, permit anyone to leave the site after nine pm, if they have uttered the word "pub" at any point in the last twenty-four hours.  All that will happen is that they will drive around Sheepwash, accosting locals and demanding to know if they've seen a pub, before arriving just before closing-time and refusing to take the landlady's increasingly broad hints. 

When the lights are turned off, they will then sit in the dark for several moments, clutching their glasses, before asking, with an air of surprise, "Oh.  Did you want us to leave?"

When they do, eventually, leave, they will then discover the Sheepwash Book Exchange, and all attempt to crowd into the telephone box to explore the stock of Danielle Steele romances, while being frantically shushed by the designated driver, who will be the only one who has figured out that it is after midnight in a very small, very quiet village.

None of this will endear you to your neighbours.

The tutors

Vet them carefully.  Some of them are a Very Bad Influence.  They will teach your na├»ve, unsuspecting students subversive techniques for avoiding unwanted company on public transport, and other undesirable things. 

This will give Arvon a Bad Name.

It would be helpful if all tutors could be encouraged to develop a secondary skill.  This means that when the students reach writing saturation point, and their brains have turned to mush, the tutors can
provide extra value for money by entertaining them with light, unchallenging displays of artistic talent, or perhaps acrobatics.

For example, Rob Shearman can draw daleks.  In order to broaden the appeal of the Arvon courses, it would be nice if Alison Macleod could perhaps learn to draw cybermen.  Not all students are scared of Daleks.  A sizeable sample of the Short Story 2013 group were more frightened of cybermen.  Or, as one student put it, "the ones that look a bit like people."  Not terribly descriptive, perhaps, except when coupled with a rather alarming impression of something that could, just about, have been a cyberman, but could equally have been intended to represent a zombie on its last legs.

And it's understandable, really.  The Daleks were a bit rubbish.  Mainly because they could be thwarted in their attempt at world-domination by a flight of stairs, or a very small kerb.  Only residents of bungalows needed to be remotely alarmed.

It wouldn't have to be cybermen, necessarily.  Perhaps Slythin.  Or the ones that look like rhinos.  There are many Doctor Who villains to chose from.

Or maybe she could juggle.

It might also be sensible to ask tutors to undergo psychological testing before entering the intense atmosphere of a residential writing course.  Not all will be able to stand up to the pressure, and some
carefully constructed tests might weed out the type of tutor who will, for example, succumb to momentary bouts of madness, on or around day three, and demand that students insert the words "left-luggage office" and "guzzle" into a piece which has, up till that point, been a gentle musing about the philosophy of the stars.  It is fortunate that writers are a resourceful bunch, on the whole, but no-one should find themselves in a situation where they are forced to use the words "Jupiter" and "left-luggage" in one sentence.


This aspect of the course was, I'm afraid to say, an immense disappointment.

I'm not sure whether or not the Totleigh Barton management team are aware of the Chekhov's Gun theory.  This states that if a gun is mentioned in chapter one, it must, at some point in the novel, be fired.

At the initial briefing, fireman were mentioned.  At some length.  The fact that the Totleigh Barton fire alarm is directly linked to the local firestation was mentioned several times.  We were informed that the alarm has never gone off before, and that it was highly unlikely that it would do so during our time there.  A classic Chekhov's Gun, if ever I saw one.

On Friday, the fire alarm went off, due to an unfortunate incident involving some halloumi.

We accordingly assembled, expectantly, in the appointed assembling place and waited for the firemen to appear.  Someone even put on a high-viz jacket.  Although it's worth noting at this point that the mere act of donning a high-viz jacket does not a hero make, whatever the wearer of said jacket might think.

No firemen appeared.  We stood there for a while, before someone informed us that the firemen had been informed of the absence of any actual fire, and would not, therefore, be putting in an appearance.

The gun was clearly visible on the wall.  It was taken down, cleaned, loaded and pointed.  We were led to believe it would be fired.

And firemen.

I would suggest that actual firemen are produced on the next occasion.

This will avoid disappointment.

Telephone/Internet Access

A little more information about this aspect of the course would be useful.  "Somewhere between the second and third cattlegrid", while technically accurate, isn't all that descriptive.

I have drafted a suggested information sheet for those who might need to make an urgent phonecall, or pick up an email.

1)  Climb hill.

2)  Proceed past second cattlegrid.

3)  Pass through gateway and continue for approximately twenty paces (based on the average stride-length of a 5'4" female)

4)  Stop

5)  Turn phone off and on again.

6)  Repeat step 5)

7)  Take two steps sideways to the very edge of the lane.

8)  Hold phone in an elevated position and walk backwards and forwards for approximately ten seconds.

9)  Attempt to dial.

10)  Repeat step 9)

11)  Listen to voicemail.

12)  Proceed a further ten paces along the lane.

13)  Reverse step 12)

14)  Download emails.

15)  Do NOT attempt to reply.  This will not work.

16)  Phone someone and shout "I'mupahillinDevonandthephonesignalisrubbishcanyoulookupanumberforme"

17)  Repeat step 16) as necessary.

18)  Attempt to memorise number.

19)  Dial number and shout "I'mupahillinDevonIcan'temailyoubuttheanswerisyesthat'sfine."

20)  Return to the house.  You will find that the phone signal develops a strange, elastic nature and, as long as you do not hang up at any point, you will retain signal most of the way back down the hill.  This is a good time to fill in loved-ones on random details of your stay, and embark in a spot of gentle musing about the quality of the rain.  The problem with this is that you won't know whether their silence means that they have expired with boredom or that the signal has cut out.  It is therefore important to punctuate the call with occasional interjections of "Hello?  Hello? Are you still there?"

Please note that the above instructions only relate to O2 customers.  Vodaphone users will, of course, discover at an early stage that they can, in fact, receive phonecalls while standing on the windowsill in the upstairs front bedrooms.  This might be something that you wish to address.  The current situation is faintly discriminatory and ensures that O2 customers spend a lot of time wandering about in the gently-drizzling rain, absorbing the idea, deep down in their fractured souls, that they are, and always will be, on the signal-less side of life.

Perhaps it might just be a good idea to confiscate all phones at the beginning of the week.  It's so much easier to embrace the complete lack of hope, if everyone around you is similarly hopeless.

Hallucinatory Drugs

I think you probably need to have the place surveyed for any strange gases or mushrooms.  Several fellow residents were quite clearly under the influence of some sort of intense hallucinatory substance by the end of the week.  I suspect it had a cumulative effect - like that stuff in the Hound of the Baskervilles.

If the source of the problem cannot be identified, perhaps a gentle debriefing session could be arranged for those who are worst-affected.  You know, the ones that are convinced that they were involved in a three am tutorial session with some strangely-named, probably Freudian, versions of the course tutors.  Or the ones who develop a strange obsession with a disembodied voice, or a soggy wasp.


I am fairly sure that your insurance limits the number of people that you can accommodate in the barn at any given time.  You might, therefore, wish to look into the unexplained and alarming Friday-night presence of assorted dubious characters: a stiff-legged man, a couple of cannibals, some women of uncertain morals, a philandering policeman, a maybe-angel and a once-was-angel, an almost-ghost, a witch, a wolf, a juggler, some moonlight wanderers.

I'm not saying we didn't enjoy their presence, simply that, no matter how engaging and diverting we found them, they did rather fill the place, and this almost certainly has implications in terms of fire safety and potential insurance claims.


Please do remind your guests that they are, at the start of the week at least, strangers to one another.  They should be very aware of what they choose to share.  They should probably be advised to stop talking after one glass of wine, rather than continuing to spill their innermost secrets and most embarrassing disclosures.

The other guests may not have their best interests at heart, and residents should make sure that they carefully scrutinise any advice given to them during this week.  For example, should any resident, who discloses the fact that she has embarrassed herself with exactly the same, particularly stupid comment to a well-known author on two separate occasions, be advised to track down said well-known author, ring her doorbell and explain herself yet again, the resident should probably be offered some help in analysing this advice, and deciding whether or not to act upon it.  Particularly if the advisers also express a wish to be notified of this visit in advance, in order to come along and film it for the internet.

Perhaps guests could be encouraged to draft a short disclaimer, for fellow attendees to sign, confirming that, in the event of any member of the course becoming a famous and celebrated novelist, other guests will refrain from disclosing, on the eve of the Man Booker Prize announcement, the embarrassing anecdote that was shared, somewhere between the third and fourth glass of wine, on the second night.


Guests should be reminded to bring a large amount of paper.  There will be more information than they could possibly have foreseen.  Failure to write it all down will lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth upon their return home, as they try to remember that one, tiny life-changing piece of information disclosed at 11.03am on Day Two, aware that nothing else so profound and important will ever enter their lives again, and that the whole of their existence has been rendered meaningless and monochrome, all due to the fact that they thought "Don't worry, there's no way I'm going to forget that," never realising that their heads would have exploded messily by the end of the third day, leaving no room for anything but the most casual contemplation as to whether another cup of tea would be a good idea.

So, to conclude, thank you Arvon, for a wonderful week.  But please do consider acting upon this feedback in order to improve the experience of all future guests.

Yours sincerely

A Very Happy Punter

1 comment:

  1. I've just laughed my little socks off. Thank you for this brilliant account of a brilliant week.